Defending Repression

Why are conservatives trying to rehabilitate McCarthyism and the Japanese internment?


During World War II, the U.S. government interned about 120,000 ethnic Japanese living in America, two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens. This is almost universally regarded as a shameful blot on America's history, a cautionary tale of racism, paranoia, and wartime hysteria. In 1988 President Reagan called it "a grave wrong" and signed legislation authorizing $20,000 in reparations to each surviving internee.

In 2000 another eminent conservative, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, assailed his colleagues' ruling striking down Nebraska's late-term abortion ban by likening it to Dred Scott and Korematsu, the rulings which upheld the constitutionality of, respectively, slavery and the Japanese-American internment.

So it takes some nerve to pen a defense of this reviled policy—which is exactly what the author and syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin did recently, in a new book titled In Defense of Internment: The Case for "Racial Profiling" in World War II and the War on Terror. Malkin's argument is closely tied to post-September 11 debates about ethnic, racial, and religious profiling as a "homeland security" measure.

Inevitably, critics have raised the Japanese internment as an extreme case of racial profiling gone awry. Malkin believes our safety is being compromised because any common-sense proposal that involves profiling—be it extra-vigilant screening of Middle Eastern passengers at airports, targeted monitoring of visitors with guest visas from countries with terrorist links, or special scrutiny of Muslim chaplains in the armed forces—is shouted down by invoking the specter of internment camps. And it's true that internment parallels have been frivolously and promiscuously thrown about in this debate.

One would think, though, that if you truly wanted to counter such slippery-slope hyperbole about ethnic or religious profiling, the last thing you'd want to do would be to defend internment. It's a bit like trying to counter arguments that legalized abortion leads to acceptance of infanticide by publishing a tract in defense of infanticide. Malkin's calculus, however, is different: She hopes that if Americans can be persuaded to get over the Japanese internment guilt complex, the profiling of Arab Americans and Muslims will become more acceptable.

To counter this guilt complex—peddled, according to Malkin, by high school textbooks, universities, ethnic activists, politicians, and the media—Malkin sets out to debunk what she describes as politically correct myths about internment: that it was motivated primarily by racism and hysteria, that there was no national security justification for it, and that the relocation and internment camps were Nazi-style death camps. (It's not clear who has ever made that last claim. Malkin asserts simply that such images are evoked today by the use of the term concentration camp, a phrase that was actually used by U.S. authorities at the time.)

The truth, Malkin contends, is that the U.S. leadership had ample reason to fear sabotage and espionage by ethnic Japanese—particularly on the basis of intelligence data declassified years after the war, from decoded Japanese
diplomatic communications—and didn't have the ability or the resources to assess individual risk.

As historical revisionism, In Defense of Internment largely falls flat. (You can go to isthatlegal.org for two scholars' critique of the book, and to Malkin's own site, michellemalkin.com, for her replies. Reason will review the book in an upcoming issue.) Malkin does demonstrate that there were instances of disloyalty by Japanese aliens and Japanese Americans during the war, and that the Roosevelt administration had evidence that the Japanese military was seeking, apparently with some success, to recruit agents in the Japanese community on the West Coast of the United States. But she never justifies a response as extreme, and as offensive to the most basic notions of justice and human rights, as mass internment.

Of the anti-Japanese bigotry that was pervasive in America and especially on the West Coast even before Pearl Harbor, and was whipped up into virulent hate by a propaganda campaign after the start of the war, Malkin says nary a word.

Responding to critics on her blog, she suggests she didn't need to address the issue of racism because her whole point was to disprove the "myth" that it was a dominant factor in the internment. (In other words, if you decide to write a book debunking the notion that obesity causes heart disease, you can omit any mention of obesity in your examination of risk factors. Makes sense.)

In the same vein, Malkin gives only passing mention to such unpleasantness as shootings of internees by camp guards but discusses at length the amenities offered in the camps and the petty complaints of some internees.

In a way, In Defense of Interment follows in the footsteps of another recent famous (or infamous) right-wing tome: last year's Treason, by Ann Coulter, which undertook the rehabilitation of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and a debunking of "the myth of 'McCarthyism.'" McCarthy, Coulter proclaimed, was a true hero in the struggle against communism, and the only unjust persecution was that of Tail Gunner Joe himself by his left-wing, America-hating enemies.

There's a strong parallel between Coulter's apologia for the anti-communist witch hunts and Malkin's apologia for the Japanese-American internment: In both cases, there was a genuine national security risk and a wrongheaded, hysterical government response that did grave damage to the very freedoms it was supposed to protect.

Notably, Coulter's harshest critics include anti-communist historians, such as Ronald Radosh and Harvey Klehr, who have taken a lot of flak from their left-wing colleagues for daring to say that Soviet espionage really was a serious threat and that many American Communists targeted as Soviet agents really were guilty. Radosh referred to Treason as "crap" on Andrew Sullivan's weblog, expressing dismay that Coulter drew on his work to support her "ludicrous" arguments. Klehr, writing in The New Republic, dismissed her book as a "crass apologia for McCarthyism."

Why the rush to defend what was only recently seen, across the political spectrum, as indefensible? Partly, it's the sheer appeal and satisfaction of skewering sacred cows, liberal ones especially—and there are, God knows, so many that deserve skewering. Indeed, in the case of McCarthyism, the stubborn blindness of leftists and many liberals both to the brutality of the Soviet regime and to the extent of Soviet espionage during the Cold War undoubtedly helped create fertile ground for Coulter-style polemics.

A similar dynamic may be at work with the Japanese internment issue. Some of the history textbooks Malkin indignantly quotes probably do err on the side of dismissing all World War II-era concerns about subversive activities by Japanese ethnics as unfounded paranoia. The weakness of this position creates an opening for revisionism, including the radical revisionism of In Defense of Internment.

It is useful, too, to remember that defending the indefensible has long been a popular sport on the left, whose own revisionist historians are busy trying to sugarcoat not McCarthyism but Stalinism. (See "Fools for Communism," April 2004.)

Also at work, however, is the dark side of modern American conservatism. The left's obsession with America's allegedly unique evilness, and in particular with real or imagined racism, has prompted a fully justified backlash. But that backlash can morph into an ugly and disturbing mind-set—one that regards all efforts to confront America's past wrongs as the province of sissy liberals and wild-eyed lefties.

As the revisionists plow ahead, sometimes one wants to ask, "Have you no sense of decency, folks, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"